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Behind the bylines: Former reporter sets out to record oral histories of notable ND journalists

Bill Marcil Sr., chairman of Forum Communications and former publisher of The Forum, is interviewed by Teri Finneman. (Photo Ryan Babb/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS – Longtime Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty was back under the spotlight Wednesday morning.

It wasn’t a national TV crew interviewing the 88-year-old newspaper veteran this time, but University of Missouri doctoral student and former Forum Communications reporter Teri Finneman.

Finneman is out to record an oral history of North Dakota journalism by interviewing those who have been involved in it for decades. The recorded histories will eventually be available to watch in the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

“We have so many notable journalists in the state, and I really feel that North Dakota journalists spend every day recording North Dakota’s history,” Finneman said. “This is an opportunity to look at the histories of the people behind the bylines.”

The pieces would be added to the current North Dakota Newspaper Association Hall of Fame exhibit in the center, which features biographies and photographs of inductees.

Virginia Nelsen, executive director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation, said the foundation is always looking for partnership such as the Hall of Fame exhibit.

“We think it’s great, it’s a great idea,” Nelsen said. “We take everything we can into our archives.”

Recording process

Each history is no easy task for Finneman and her subjects.

She keeps a list of about 100 questions, which can take about three to four hours for her subjects to answer. That’s actually on the short end, as some oral histories can last eight to 10 hours, Finneman said.

“What I’m doing – the three-hour ones – aren’t quite as detailed as perhaps they could be, but I think it’s a really good start to capturing North Dakota journalism history,” Finneman said.

Afterward, the interviews are burned onto DVDs and CDs and transcripts are produced. The process can become expensive, but Finneman said the NDNA’s Education Foundation has provided enough funding to cover recording and transcribing the first three oral histories.

In addition to Hagerty, Finneman has interviewed Bill Marcil Sr., chairman of Forum Communications and former publisher of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, and John Andrist, state senator for District 2 and former NDNA president and publisher of The Journal in Crosby.

More subjects will be added as funding becomes available. Finneman has expressed interest in recording the histories of former Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs, reporter Chuck Haga and recent NDNA Hall of Fame inductee Roger Bailey, former publisher of the Turtle Mountain Star in Rolla.

Broadcast journalists are also of interest to Finneman, and she hopes that industry comes together to record its history as well.

Nelsen recognizes the importance and value of the project’s preservation of history.

“I think it’s very forward thinking of them to do these videos,” Nelsen said. “Just to get three to four hours of Marilyn Hagerty on film is priceless to say the least given all that she has written over her career.”

Lost knowledge

While the current display consists of one kiosk, Finneman wants that to change.

Down the road, she said she hopes the display will expand beyond the computer kiosk and into an exhibit featuring North Dakota journalism pieces such as old equipment and broadcast clips and newspaper front pages covering historic events.

“We’d love to have something like that,” Nelsen said.

The project does come too late for one of Finneman’s former bosses, Don Gackle.

Gackle, who died in 2012 at 83, was owner and publisher of BHG Inc., which owns 13 newspapers in the state’s central region.

He also was a founding member of the NDNA Education Foundation.

Finneman jokes that she has worked for half of the state’s newspapers since 1999. She highlights her time with Gackle, her first publisher, as some of the most influential of her career.

The loss of Gackle’s knowledge is one reason Finneman said she wants to ensure the histories do find a place in the Heritage Center’s archives.

“That’s one of the reasons it’s important to do oral histories, because when you lose legends like Don Gackle, it makes you realize you need to get these people’s history while you still can,” she said.